Interview with a Commercial Music and Film Composer

Hey everyone Shannon Kennedy here and with me today I have composer Andrew Balogh and he’s going to talk to us about what he does and composition and a lot of fun stuff like that. And he’s also a saxophone player and we actually went to Cal State Long Beach together so I’ve known him for a few years. Hi Andrew.

THE INTERVIEW

Hi Shannon, how are you?

I’M GOOD THANKS AND HOW ARE YOU? THANK YOU FOR BEING ON THE SHOW WITH US.

My pleasure. Thanks for excusing the awesome v-neck that I’m wearing. And the crazy hairdo.

SO WHY DON’T YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOURSELF AND WHAT YOU DO.

Okay, well I started with the saxophone and the piano when I was seven and was actively passionate about jazz and classical music. I began to write and compose kind of my own tunes in high school and also dabbled a little bit in music production. And I was a jazz studies major in school and went on to study composition. Now I spend most of my time composing for movie trailers, orchestrating for films… I recently did two big band arrangements for Michael Bublé. I’m going to be composing for a reality television show which I’m pretty excited about. So that’s pretty much what I’m doing now.

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO REALLY GET INTO COMPOSITION, TO REALLY FOCUS AS OPPOSED TO PERFORMANCE BECAUSE YOU WERE A JAZZ STUDIES MAJOR SO YOU MADE A SWITCH SOMEWHERE. WHAT INSPIRED THAT?

I mean, I still love to play. I think a lot of things inspired composition. I’ve never only had the mentality that “I only love jazz music and I only love classical and that’s it.” I grew up with my parents listening to the Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones and even, you know, hip hop like Dr. Dre, and guys like that. And I just always had this love for pretty much every genre of music. I think there’s, you know, beauty that can be found in someone’s lyrics and there’s beauty that can be found in a Bach fugue or Beethoven’s compositions or even in some of Stravinsky’s stuff. And the same, you know, amazement I think can be found listening to Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and people like that. So I’ve always just kind of like loved different genres of music and depending on what kind of mood I’m in I guess determines what I’ll listen to. So I think my, to sum it up, I think I decided to go into composition because I just wanted to be able to express myself however I was feeling at any given moment and maybe that might be in regards to producing a pop song or doing an arrangement of a jazz standard or whatever I’m feeling at the moment.

WITH SO MANY DIVERSE INFLUENCES HOW DO YOU CONCENTRATE ON ONE PARTICULAR STYLE WHEN YOU’RE WRITING OR WHEN YOU’RE PERFORMING?

I think that what I like to try to do in my head and in my own mindset is to try to think of it as just music. And you know this because you’ve studied composition and you’ve played. You know, anyone who’s learned jazz tunes and knows ii-V-I chord progressions, you know, could easily transcend or switch over to writing a pop song. Because a lot of the chord progressions that you hear in pop music or rock, or even hip hop are derived from the roots of jazz music. Classical obviously came first and then jazz was derived from classical music and now from jazz you have like rock songs that were influenced by, you know, like if you listen to someone like Jimi Hendrix, he was influenced by a lot of blues. I-IV-II, the common blues chord progressions, so I think when I write, I try to just remind myself that it’s all music and it all came from the same place. So maybe the chords are slightly different like, in pop or rock songs you don’t have as many chords happening as in jazz music where you have two different chords happening per measure and it’s changing a lot more. Whereas maybe in pop music you have like a Rihanna song – you might have the same chord for two measures and you might only have four chords in the whole song. But if you listen deeply enough, you could hear that that music came from somewhere else.

So I try to think of everything as like, this big pot full of different types of music but they’re all in the same pot so they’re not “oh jazz is way over here and pop and hip hop are way over here or classical is way over here.” They’re all somehow similar and it’s, by making small adjustments, like maybe leaving out certain chords, and changing the instrumentation, it’s not that much different.

OKAY, SO YOU TALKED A LITTLE BIT ABOUT WRITING AND THE MUSIC SIDE OF IT, BUT WHAT ABOUT LYRIC WRITING? BECAUSE YOU WRITE LYRICS AS WELL, TOO, RIGHT?

Yeah, yeah. I think, you know, lyrics I think those are kind of more similar to maybe writing poetry. I think, you know, maybe you’re in a… I keep a notepad with me and I just kind of, if I think of something catchy, I’ll write it down in my notepad. Just as if you’re a saxophonist and you’re maybe driving in your car and you think of a cool lick or a cool pattern, you might quickly write that down and expand upon it and maybe you realize “oh that’s kind of a cool pentatonic lick or a cool in the circle of fourths or whatever.” So I think lyric writing, you’re thinking about maybe just kind of word flow and human emotion but you’re expressing it through words. And I think when you’re writing lyrics for a song that’s when the actual music, music part comes in because you need to make sure that your phrases are lining up. So,

Broken hearts never seem to want to stop their bleeding
So in the end, I guess the only choice you had was leaving

I just kind of made that up, but the point is, that can be a singer-songwriter song or whatever, but the point is that you want your phrases to align themselves just like in jazz music if you have a thirty-four measure, thirty-two measure, sixteen measure head, the solo form is going to be sixteen measures. So lyric writing, there’s also structure. You could think of four phrases, four phrases, four phrases. You don’t want to, I guess what’s happening in the music you’re writing if you’re writing for a singer-songwriter or if you’re writing for a pop artist or an rnb artist, they want everything to be symmetrical. And they also want it to rhyme too because for radio play that’s important. So, I don’t know if that made sense. But I think that, just getting the emotions on paper, thinking of sentences or phrases that sound catchy or “I like the way these words fit together” just like “I like the ways these notes fit together” on the page. Writing them down and starting with that and then taking that and assigning the melody to that sentence. So, sentence first, melody second. Or melody first, and then words to the melody.

DO YOU HAVE A PARTICULAR WAY THAT YOU USUALLY DO IT? DO YOU USUALLY WRITE THEM TOGETHER OR THE MELODY AND THEN THE LYRICS OR DOES IT KIND OF CHANGE?

I think for me the melody usually kind of comes first. And I think, probably just because of the playing an instrument. You know, I was never a singer. I was always an instrumentalist and I think you know, obviously when you have a saxophone in your mouth you’re not singing and you’re not speaking lyrics. You’re playing which is a melody and I think for me, I always like to think of a melody and I let the melody kind of dictate what words I want to kind of insert to match the pitches. But you know, other people do it the other way around. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong way to do it, but for me, I always think of melody first.

I think as a musician, for young people watching this, just be ready to jump on anything that comes your way. If you’re a total jazz guy, and that’s always how I was, I mean I love jazz and I still love to practice and play out when I can. But I think as a musician now, if you want to stay busy and you want to be able to make a living, be as diverse as you can and you know, don’t ever say no. If an opportunity comes your way, and it’s in a different genre, you never know what’s going to happen. I never thought any of this would happen. And, you know, that song went on to do something great and I’ve done tracks for other hip hop artists. And the exposure’s been great. I think it’s all beneficial. So that’s how the Grammy happened.

The movie thing happened, I did a couple independent films for some friends that were going to USC and one of them had gone on to Sundance and did really well. A director saw it and had asked me to work on some stuff with him. And I ended up collaborating with a composer called James Newton Howard. He’s done a handful of films. It’s literally just about building yourself like a business. Starting low and doing good work, and then meeting this person and doing good work and being reliable and working hard and staying busy. I think that’s kind of the summary of a long story.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS THAT YOU FEEL THAT YOU DID AS PART OF SCHOOL OR INDEPENDENTLY THAT HAVE HELPED PREPARE YOU THE MOST FOR WHAT YOU’RE DOING NOW?

That’s a good question. I think, well, first of all I think that school is really beneficial. And I definitely, you know, I think that when I was in high school, and a lot of my friends, we all kind of had the mentality of “why not just stay at home and practice for eight hours a day and transcribe solos and everything.” And that is definitely really beneficial but things that I learned in my first two semesters at Long Beach and ended up benefitting me five, six, seven, eight, ten years down the road and those are actually my theory classes and my ear training classes. Just being able to understand how chords work and move. How they function… High school kids hate it but practice your scales. I think music is, every song or composition or every tune starts in a key. And usually, you know, that song is centered around a scale. If it’s in the key of A, usually the melody is structured through the notes in the A major scale. If I could preach for a moment, I would say that learning all your major, minor scales, understanding chord progressions and stuff, I think for me personally was a good tool to have. Just because there’s chords in every genre of music. You hear chords in hip hop, you hear chords in pop, you see chords in classical, and sometimes you see similarities. I think that understanding that is no different than learning the alphabet and understanding grammar, spelling and stuff. If you have a good knowledge of that, you can sit down and you can write an essay which is what everyone does – middle school, high school, college students. I think music is the same thing. Knowing your scales, developing your ear so that you can hear what’s happening in songs and stuff like that. I think is probably one of the best things I’ll learn and also playing in groups. I think being in a situation where you’re thinking about balance and tuning and articulations I think is really beneficial too.

WHAT OTHER SKILLS OTHER THAN MUSICAL SKILLS DO YOU THINK ARE IMPORTANT FOR SOMEONE DOING WHAT YOU DO TO HAVE?

Non-musical skills, I definitely think that the most important thing you can do is be reliable and I think in that, I have my iPhone with me all the time. First thing when I wake up, I check my emails. I check my texts, I check my call log and I always want to get back to people. And before I go to bed, I go through my texts and make sure I haven’t missed anyone. I think there’s kind of a stereotype amongst some musicians that musicians are kind of flaky and unreliable. And I think that stereotype is sort of true. If it wasn’t true, I don’t think that stereotype would exist. I think if you’re really talented, that’s obviously a plus, but I have seen cases where there are people that have maybe aren’t quite as talented as someone else but they get a gig or they get hired to maybe do a couple cues on a film because the director or the title composer of the film knows that they’re going to do a good job, they’re reliable. You know, they’re not going to miss a session, they’re not going to ask for a deadline extension. They’re someone you can count on and even for you when you’re performing for your group, you want to know that your drummers going to show up on time and you want to know that your bass player is going to be able to play the tunes. And that has really nothing to do with music. That just has to do with being a responsible human being. You turn on your blinker when you change lanes because it’s courteous. You call people back on the phone because it’s the right thing to do. So I think that would be my non-musical advice.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS THAT YOU DID BEFORE YOU STARTED GETTING INTO COMPOSITION AND PERFORMANCE?

Outside of music?

YEAH.

I was a soccer player growing up. I played club soccer. I played on the high school soccer team. I used to surf i in high school, I haven’t gone in years now. I think another thing aside from music, being in good health and good shape is, I think that it’s something that can actually help you as a musician. I think if you exercise and you’re in good shape, you wake up in the morning and you feel good, you want to get your instrument out and you want to practice, you know, you’re not tired. For the younger people out there, if you guys do go on to be professionals, you’re going to be working a lot and you’re going to have, maybe, a rigorous schedule. I think musicians are working all the time. They’re rehearsing. They’re driving from gig to gig and sometimes you’re doing things that you’re not going to get paid for. Sometimes you need to rehearse for four hours and you’re not going to get paid. Maybe you only get paid at your gig. So, if you’re in good health and you’re in good shape, you’re going to be resilient to sleepless nights, working hard, and stuff like that. I like sports. I also like In n’ Out (laughs). I don’t know what else. Cars… Traveling. I guess, traveling. Traveling is a good one. I like to go to different countries

DO YOU GET TO DO THAT A LOT AS PART OF WHAT YOU’RE DOING?

Yeah, yeah definitely. I’ve been pretty fortunate with that. I go to New York quite a bit. I’ve been to London a few times. When I was playing more I did a couple of smaller tours and got to see Europe. Definitely to the people that are playing instruments, stick with it. Because you never know what’s going to happen. You might get a chance to go on tour backing someone up and you know, you get a free trip to Europe for two weeks or Asia. I think even if you don’t want to be a professional musician, or be in the music business, I think keeping with it is definitely a good thing. I think musicians too in general are special people. They are really, they really see the world differently. I think they feel emotions stronger and they’re just fun people to be around. Alright, go for it.

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR GOALS FOR THE FUTURE. WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO DO IN THE NEXT TEN YEARS OR SO?

I have a lot, I think the three biggest goals would be to continue taking my craft seriously, making sure that I don’t fall behind my practicing or I don’t ever let my work suffer, or get redundant. I think one big thing that I’ve always wanted to do was to create a scholarship for someone talented to audition for every year. And give a scholarship to someone who wanted to go study at a great school who maybe can’t afford it. Or offer a scholarship for someone who’s maybe really talented but can’t afford a Selmer Mark VI saxophone or an Epiphone guitar. I definitely have given a couple of clinics and masterclasses at some schools when I was on tour and I’ve met some really talented people, that are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years that are really good and they’re playing on student model instruments and you’re wondering why… Then you find out they’re living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx in New York or something like that and all they have is their instrument and music. And I think if someone really wants to go on to do it seriously, and are working hard, I think that person should have the opportunity to play on a good instrument or go to a great school. So definitely setting up a scholarship and then also I think I would love to see the music industry change in the sense that record labels begin to sign more talented people and they begin to look less at maybe beauty and fashion and more to who’s just talented. So, you know, giving a record deal to maybe somebody who’s thirty-two years old and maybe they’re a little overweight but they could sing awesome as opposed to someone who is insanely attractive but you have to melodyne them and auto tune them to get them to sound decent. So I don’t know how I could change that, that will probably never change but…

YOU COULD START YOUR OWN RECORD LABEL.

I could start my own record label. Maybe I’ll do that. I’ll call it, I don’t know what I’ll call it. I’ll call it “Music Only Records”. So yeah, I guess those would be three goals that I would like to accomplish in the next, well, in the future.

THAT’S GREAT. IF YOU HAD ONE PIECE OF ADVICE FOR A YOUNG MUSICIAN, WHAT WOULD THAT BE?

Practice, definitely. I think Wynton Marsalis said it, someone said it, “you’re better off practicing 45 minutes a day as opposed to 3.5 hours every other day.” Be consistent with your practicing. If you’re an athlete, you’re going to work out everyday, you’re going to train. I think practicing, it’s just so important. Learn your scales. I think another important thing is get with a good private teacher. I think private instruction is, it could be a little costly, but it’s priceless because then you have the guidance of somebody. You have someone listening to you. You have you someone fixing a mistake right there on the spot as opposed to maybe… Not to say that someone can’t fix their own mistakes but maybe it might take you three weeks, four weeks to figure it out as opposed to if you have the guidance of a private teacher. You kind of have someone watching over you. And I think lastly, tape record yourself when you practice. For instrumentalists, you can go right back and you can listen to yourself right away. “And, oh man, my tone doesn’t sound right or I was out of tune or my articulation doesn’t sound as pronounced and specific or oh wow I missed that chord change.” And if you’re a composer, you know, same thing. Basic piano skills I think are good for everyone, musicians and composers. Study scores. If you want to do stuff for tv and film, you can get the score to Titanic. It’s all online, I mean, whatever film you like. And watch the score as you’re listening to the soundtrack. I just think really, the more time you put into your craft, the better off you’re going to be. So, lots of practicing, lots of studying scores. Don’t do drugs. Be responsible. Listen to your parents, whatever else (laughs). So I think that would be my advice.

DO YOU HAVE ANYTHING ELSE YOU WANT TO ADD BEFORE WE CLOSE OUT THE SESSION?

I think that pretty much. What are some common questions that students will ask you?

I GET A LITTLE BIT OF EVERYTHING. LIKE HOW DO I IMPROVE MY PLAYING? SUPER GENERAL THINGS LIKE THAT. THE OTHER DAY I HAD SOMEONE ASK ME HOW TO IMPROVE THEIR ALTISSIMO. SO IT’S A LITTLE BIT ACROSS THE BOARD, BUT YOU KNOW ANYTHING SPECIFIC TO MAYBE WRITING OR PERFORMING OR MAYBE LIKE BALANCING YOUR SCHEDULE, THINGS LIKE THAT.

Balancing your schedule. Balancing your schedule is a tough one because I think everyone has a lot of stuff going on. One thing that’s helped me, usually Sunday night I’ll sit down and I’ll get my calendar out and I’ll look at everything I kind of have to do throughout the week. I’ll think about, well, if I have to drive to this studio in Hollywood, I’ll be passing up Ralph’s grocery store, so I’m going to get my groceries on the way back. Yeah, I think balancing your schedule, put all your tasks on a piece of paper on a Sunday night usually before your Monday starts and see where you can save yourself some time. And make sure on the schedule is practicing. Definitely. Overtones for altissimo.

KIND OF ON THE SAME SUBJECT, YOU PLAY MULTIPLE INSTRUMENTS AND IN ADDITION TO PLAYING AND PERFORMING YOU ALSO COMPOSE, SO HOW DO YOU FIND THE TIME TO BALANCE STUDY AND PRACTICE FOR EACH OF THOSE THINGS ESPECIALLY ON TOP OF THE FACT THAT YOU HAVE A CAREER WHICH, I GUESS, FOR A KID COULD BE COMPARABLE TO SCHOOL. SO YOU HAVE YOUR COMMITMENTS TO SCHOOL AND THEN ON TOP OF THAT YOU HAVE TO FIND TIME TO PRACTICE AND DEVELOP EACH THING YOU’RE FOCUSING ON.

Very, very good question. I think, well obviously, there have been times where I’ve been so busy composing that maybe four or five days will go by where I don’t play and that’s just kind of how it is. You know, you can’t not sleep for a week. You could cut down hours but you end up getting sick so I think what I’ve been able to do is I’ve gotten really good at practicing really efficiently. And if I know I’m not going to have time to practice, like for example, I feel like my flute playing is the weakest. So that’s an instrument that if I have limited time, I’m going to get to first because that’s my weakness. I think for players to realize, “okay what am I good at and what am I not good at?” Figure that out first, and take notes or whatever, Write down what you feel like your strengths are and your weaknesses are. If you have limited time to practice, start with what you’re weak at. If F# major scale is the most difficult for you, play that first. Only that. You’re not going to forget your C major scale. No one does. So I mean, things like getting efficient. If I have a limited schedule, I’m going to do long tones and scales. And then maybe pull out a quick etude and just sight read through it so my sight reading is there, my tone is there from the long tones, and my technique is still not suffering. So I think, you know, obviously, try to make as many sacrifices as you can. Maybe your friends want to go to the movies one night, but maybe you haven’t practiced. Stay home and practice. That’s what’s going to help you in the long run. But I think realizing what your strengths are and what your weaknesses are is really good because then you can just focus on the weaknesses when you don’t have a lot of time. And you’re still able to stay in shape. And it’s tough.

AS FAR AS COMPOSITION, BECAUSE YOU WERE KIND OF TALKING ABOUT PRACTICING YOUR INSTRUMENTS… YOU SAID EARLIER THAT YOU STUDIED SCORES AND LISTENED TO A LOT OF RECORDINGS. IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU DO TO DEVELOP YOUR SONGWRITING AND YOUR COMPOSITION?

Absolutely. If you’re living in Southern California, chances are you’re spending a lot of time on the road. So I just get my iPod out and I connect it to my car and I listen to music. But I think there’s a difference between passively listening and actively listening. I think that the type of listening that I like to do is “okay, I’m not going to have a lot of time to study scores, but I’m going to be on the road for an hour whatever driving to a session or whatever it is.” I’ll listen to something that I might be working on, maybe I might be listening to some Hans Zimmer cues just because I may need to write something similar to that and I’ll listen to it. And maybe I’ll listen to the first eight seconds or the first four measures and I’ll stop it, on my steering wheel. Don’t text and drive, stop it on your steering wheel on the car, and then I’ll try to sing back what I heard. (Sings) Or whatever it was and then I’ll go back and play it and believe it or not, if you have a lot of time on the road, and you could sing along with, maybe it’s the head to a jazz standard or if it’s a melody or if it’s singing along with lyrics in your car that’s actually, I think, really beneficial because it’s forcing you to verbally execute what you’re hearing. And it’s forcing you to listen deeper. If you have to sing back something, you have to listen to it a lot more intensely in order to do that.

For composers, if you don’t have a lot of time, I would say whenever you’re, if you’re working out, listen to music. Obviously you probably don’t want to be singing at 24 hour fitness, because people will make fun of you but have music in your ears all the time. I think is a good way to do it.

THAT’S REALLY GOOD ADVICE ACTUALLY BECAUSE YOU REALLY NEED TO MAXIMIZE THE FREE TIME THAT YOU HAVE SO THAT INSTEAD OF DOING THINGS PASSIVELY, OR YOU KNOW, LIKE WHEN YOU DO YOUR HOMEWORK AND YOU”RE LISTENING TO MUSIC, YOU’RE NOT REALLY PAYING ATTENTION TO THE MUSIC BUT IF YOU’RE IN THE CAR OR YOU’RE WALKING OR SOMETHING, IF YOU HAVE MUSIC IN YOUR EAR, YOU CAN LISTEN TO IT REALLY AND THINK ABOUT WHAT’S GOING ON. AND THEN ALSO WHEN YOU SING AFTER, YOU’RE COMMITTING IT TO MEMORY AND BUILDING UP YOUR VOCABULARY AS A COMPOSER OR AS A PLAYER AND I THINK THAT’S A REALLY GREAT THING AND THAT’S REALLY GREAT ADVICE.

That’s, you said it better than I could have said it. Right on the money. Listen to what Shannon said. She’s got it down.

SO WHERE CAN PEOPLE FIND MORE INFORMATION ABOUT YOU? GET IN TOUCH WITH YOU OR LISTEN TO SOME OF WHAT YOU’VE DONE?

I have a website, andrewbalogh.com. I don’t really update it right now. I’m currently working on a reality tv show. It’s called “Throw it Back”. We just released the trailer to it on Youtube and it actually went viral and it was trending on Youtube for five days. It has 200,000 hits and it’s only been up, for actually, no, four days. So I’m pretty excited about that. That’s going to start airing in the fall. They’re currently negotiating between NBC, Fox, and ESPN. We’re not exactly sure which one of those we’re going to go with. So definitely, you’ll see that on tv. Let’s see, what else. I have a couple pop songs that are coming out. That’s kind of funny. I wrote a song for Lady Gaga. She’s going to record it. It’s called “Fade to Black.” It’s pretty exciting. It was kind of a fun project. As far as jazz goes, I recorded lead alto on a student film. Probably won’t be able to find it though. I did two arrangements for Michael Bublé that he’s taking on tour. So when he goes and sings at the Hollywood Bowl this summer go check it out.

WELL, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR DOING THE INTERVIEW AND FOR SHARING A BIT OF YOUR KNOWLEDGE WITH US. I APPRECIATE IT GREATLY.

My pleasure.

THANK YOU.

Thank you Shannon. Take care.

YOU TOO. BYE.

Bye bye.

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Published on: March 19, 2013

Filled Under: Interviews

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